Cover Story

THE WAR AFTER THE WAR

Issue: "Year in Review 2003," Dec. 27, 2003

"Mission Accomplished" read the banner flying from the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, the day President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq. Like his father's pledge of "Read my lips: No new taxes," however, those were words the younger Bush would live to regret.

The mission of removing Saddam Hussein from power had indeed been accomplished in an almost-unbelievable 35 days. But the greater mission-securing the country, writing a constitution, holding democratic elections, restoring basic services, capturing Baath Party leaders, finding weapons of mass destruction, stamping out terrorism, and so forth-continued to dominate the news for the remainder of the year.

In the wake of a quick, successful war, it was, perhaps, understandable that Americans would expect a quick, successful peace. With Iraqi throngs handing flowers to U.S. soldiers and hailing President Bush as a savior, how difficult could the reconstruction possibly be?

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The snipers seemed like a minor nuisance at first, and occasional grenade attacks were to be expected in a country armed to the teeth. But as the body count mounted, so did the criticisms. Even the Democratic presidential hopefuls, long silent or supportive of the war effort, began bashing Mr. Bush's handling of postwar Iraq.

Military experts thought they might have gained the upper hand on July 22, when Saddam Hussein's ruthless sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in an intense firefight in Mosul, 220 miles north of Baghdad. But rather than fragmenting, the insurgency seemed to become even more focused and sophisticated in the absence of the Hussein heirs.

The first major setback came on Aug. 7, when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 11 and wounding more than 50. It was the deadliest attack since U.S. forces captured the capital in April, but it was only a warm-up. On Aug. 19, the whole world felt the aftershocks of a bombing that leveled one wing of the UN compound in Baghdad. The biggest-ever attack on a UN civilian operation killed more than 20, and sent other international aid organizations scurrying for the first flight out of the country.

American soldiers and foreigners in Iraq were not the only targets of the terror campaign. A massive car bomb exploded near Iraq's holiest Shiite shrine on Aug. 29, claiming more than 100 victims, including Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, one of the most popular imams of the majority Muslim sect.

For every sign of progress in Iraq, insurgents seemed to respond with a successful violent attack. When oil wells were repaired, rebels bombed the oil pipelines. When law-and-order responsibilities in Baghdad were turned over to Iraqi police, rebels bombed police headquarters. When 25 Iraqis were selected to advise U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, rebels assassinated one of the council's most prominent members. The message was clear: No facet of life in Iraq would be allowed to return to normal without a fight.

Yet in spite of all the turmoil, the Bush administration never shrank from that fight. Even as his approval ratings sagged, the president rallied a reluctant Congress, wary allies, and weary troops. His $87 billion aid package was approved over Democratic objections, and a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving made international headlines.

As Christmas approached-despite two November attacks on U.S. helicopters that took 33 lives-there was reason for optimism. Although 446 Americans had been killed in Iraq as of Dec. 10, the pace of attacks against U.S. targets had slowed appreciably. A U.S. counteroffensive seemed to beat back the pro-Saddam insurgency, and 41 of the 55 most-wanted members of the former regime were either dead or behind bars.

And then, on Dec. 13, President Bush received the ultimate early Christmas gift when U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein alive outside his hometown of Tikrit. Suddenly, the administration's goal of turning over power to local leaders by July 1, 2004, seemed like it might actually be within reach. Despite the breakthrough, a chastened White House sought to tamp down expectations. There was still no peace, no stability, no weapons of mass destruction. But although the mission was still far from accomplished, it seemed for the first time to be far from impossible.

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